How Parents Can Encourage Constructive Play in Toddlers

toddler boy playing with building blocks while mom and sister watch

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Early childhood researchers believe there is a ladder that young children developmentally climb, which includes moving from one stage of play to another.

The first stage is referred to as functional play when children find simple pleasure in repeatedly moving objects and exploring toys or other playthings through their senses. Constructive play is the next phase of play. In this stage, toddlers have a deep understanding of what various objects can do; they will now try to build things with the toys and everyday objects they find around them.

When a Child's Attention Span Lends Itself to Constructive Play

At around 2 years of age, children begin to have a longer attention span. This means your child is able to spend longer stretches sitting and focusing on activities with one set of toys. During this time of extended play, you may see your little one move from simple banging toys around to moving them with a purpose.

You can see this transition happen during block play, for instance. Following time spent in functional play activities with the blocks, your toddler knows how the block feels, that some are bigger than others, that if you lay one on a flat steady surface it won't fall. The next step then is for her to start stacking the blocks on top of each other. Your child might build a basic tower and then place some Little People figures around it, showing that he's intended to create a house for his guys.​​

Tips for Encouraging Constructive Play

While toddlers are great at turning boxes, paper towels, and everyday objects into "toys," there are some great commercial toys that are good picks for children in this stage of development and beyond. These include:

  • Interlocking blocks like LEGO Duplo Building Sets or Lincoln Logs
  • Art supplies such as crayons, paper, paints, scissors and glue
  • Playdough by itself or with just a few sculpting tools
  • Sand and water table

Basically, look for toys and materials that promote open-ended play. This will give your child the freedom to construct things from his own imagination versus things that a game maker or artist has thought up.

The Benefits of Constructive Play

When toddlers play with these open-ended materials, they have the chance to build many different skills. Here is a shortlist of some of what they can learn through constructive play.

  • By building with traditional and interlocking block, toddlers can recreate scenes from their life such as visiting the zoo, which helps them understand their world and process information.
  • Building in sand involves using one object to represent another, which is the first step toward abstract thinking.
  • Using art materials to create a picture or project gives toddlers practice using fine motor skills that they need to write and perform tasks such as buttoning clothes.

Most importantly, constructive play fires the imagination as it prepares your child for the next milestone, dramatic play.

1 Source
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  1. Wellhousen K, Crowther I. Creating Effective Learning Environments. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson Thomsen, Delmar Learning; 2004.

By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.